Although much attention is paid to large firms, there are myriad non “Big Law” firms involved in all areas of legal work. Unlike large firms that have relatively standard practices around summer opportunities, full-time post-graduate offers, salaries, and billable hours, non “Big Law” firms take varying approaches to all of these issues. For example, some non “Big Law” firms align their pay with nonprofit pay ($40,000 range); some pay like federal government ($60,000 range); and a few approach the starting salary of large corporate firms ($215,000 range). Due diligence is required to learn about a particular firm’s approach to recruiting.
Small law firm practitioners can serve as generalists or can focus on particular areas of the law, such as intellectual property, tax, real estate, or family law. Some small firms tend to be truly general practice firms, handling everything from tort matters to wills to divorces. Typical areas of practice for smaller firms include employment, family, trusts and estates, personal injury and criminal law. There are also smaller firms with practices that are very similar to large law firms. The differences are that the matters are often on a smaller scale and there are fewer people to handle the work. Because smaller firms may charge lower fees for their services, they attract more individual clients than corporate clients. Attorneys with smaller firms often have more autonomy, more substantive work earlier in their careers, and more client contact than their counterparts in larger law firms. Attorneys in these firms are usually expected to bring clients to the firm more quickly than they would in the large firm setting. Although this is a generalization, smaller firms often place more emphasis on balancing work and personal time and less emphasis on billable hours. This is not to say that small firm practitioners do not work hard. In some firms, they work just as many hours as attorneys in large firms. Attorneys in smaller firms are usually not earning the same salaries as their counterparts in larger firms.
Boutique law firms concentrate on one particular area of practice. For example, some boutique firms concentrate solely on issues relating to intellectual property, others focus only on labor and employment. There are some advantages in working for a boutique firm, including the ability to work with and learn from experts in the field; the added respect from clients, fellow practitioners, and often judges who assume that boutique lawyers know about their field; and the high salaries that many boutique firms offer to attract attorneys with specialized skills. The disadvantages include the lack of exposure to other areas of the law in which you may have an interest; the potential inability to address tangential legal issues faced by a client; and the possibility that significant statutory or economic changes will eliminate the need for your practice.
Public Interest/Plaintiff’s Firms
A public interest law firm is a private, for-profit association of lawyers with a mission of assisting underrepresented people or causes. Clients are often chosen based on their need for the firm’s services, and the cause their claim relates to, and not their ability to pay. Sliding scale fees, attorney fee cases, and contingent fee cases are common. Typical areas of practice include employment discrimination, consumer rights, civil rights, criminal defense, environmental law, and disability rights. Some plaintiffs’ firms focus on standard personal injury work, while others handle claims with broader social issues, such as defective consumer products. While some people may not view plaintiff’s work as public interest in nature, others see it as serving the needs of the underrepresented individual against more powerful institutions. Because these firms are often quite small, associates often receive significant responsibility early in their careers.
Use the following resources to learn more about these types of firms:
- CDO’s Specialized Law Firms List, which includes information about alumni who work for the firms and students who summered at the firms.
- The Courtyard, Yale Law School’s alumni engagement platform. Click “Explore the Community” then “More Filters” then “Employer Type(s)” and select “Law Firm – Public Interest Focus” to locate alumni with experience in public interest focused firms.
- Harvard’s Private Public Interest Law and Plaintiff’s Firm Guide, which provides information and advice, along with a Private Public Interest and Plaintiffs’ Firm Directory.
- www.psjd.org has info about public interest law firms. Select the Organization Type “Law Firm—Public Interest Focus/Practice.” To narrow your search further you can select particular practice areas. Each entry provides contact information, an organization description, a link to the employer’s web site if available, and a link to opportunities if available.
- The Vault Law Rankings contains law firm rankings by practice area in the “Law Rankings” section. Although the lists include some general practice firms, many of the larger boutique firms are listed, especially in the IP boutiques, labor and employment, and litigation boutique sections. Vault also provides a ranking of the Top 150 under 150 which provides info about smaller firms.
- The National Law Journal authors the Appellate Hot List, IP Litigation Hot List, Litigation Boutiques Hot List, and Plaintiffs Hot List which are available to students through ALM Legal Intelligence by clicking the “Surveys” tab. This site must be accessed through Yale’s VPN.
- www.martindale.com, an online directory of law firms containing information about firms of all sizes. Search for law firms by name, location, practice area and/or firm size. Search for lawyers by name, location, practice area and/or law school attended.
- The interview process. Ultimately, you may need to rely more heavily on the interview process itself to get a good sense of the firms that are best suited to you.